NASA is working on the most powerful rocket ever built: the Space Launch System. What could it be used for to explore the Solar System?
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NASA is in an awkward in-between time right now. Since the beginning of the space age, the agency has had the ability to send its astronauts into space. The first American to go to space, Alan Shepard, did a suborbital launch on board a Mercury Redstone rocket in 1961.
Then the rest of the Mercury astronauts went on Atlas rockets, and then the Gemini astronauts flew on various Titan rockets. NASA’s ability to hurl people and their equipment into space took a quantum leap with the enormous Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo program.
It’s difficult to properly comprehend just how powerful the Saturn V was, so I’ll give you some examples of things this monster could launch. A single Saturn V could blast 122,000 kilograms or 269,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit, or send 49,000 kilograms or 107,000 pounds on a transfer orbit to the Moon.
Instead of continuing on with the Saturn program, NASA decided to shift gears and build the mostly reusable space shuttle. Although it was shorter than the Saturn V, the space shuttle with its twin external solid rocket boosters could put 27,500 kilograms or 60,000 pounds into Low Earth orbit. Not too bad.
And then, in 2011, the space shuttle program wrapped up. And with it, the United States’ ability to launch humans into the space. And most importantly, to send astronauts to the continuously inhabited International Space Station. That task has fallen to Russian rockets until the US builds back the capability for human spaceflight.